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European researcher's favourite night of the year

After Hours - Science Uncovered

We'll be hosting our biggest-ever Science Uncovered on Friday 27 September 2013. At the Museum in London and the Museum in Tring, our scientists and visiting experts will gather across galleries and outdoors in a fabulous show of displays, tours, experiments, challenges, discussions and more.

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Recent blog posts by our scientists

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Feb 26, 2015 Deep diving and the greatest library on Earth

On Wed 14 January 2014, the Museum welcomed a guest speaker to present a special science seminar. Richard Pyle of Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii, spoke about:

 

...the number of species on planet Earth that remain unknown to science exceeds (perhaps vastly) the number of species that have so far been discovered, let alone formally documented... Within the global biodiversity library, we are at this point in human history like toddlers running through the halls of the Library of Congress, largely unaware of the true value of the information that surrounds us... Taxonomists are the librarians, developing new tools to build the card catalog for the Greatest Library on Earth... What we accomplish within the next twenty years will impact the quality of life for humans over the next twenty thousand years.

 

Richard is an ichthyologist exploring extreme deep reef habitats, a bioinformatician and an ICZN Commissioner, a SCUBA re-breather engineer and and a two-time, two-topic TED Speaker. Watch the film of Rich's fascinating talk in the Museum's Flett Theatre:

 

Feb 20, 2015 World Pangolin Day: Pangolins in Peril
What does the future hold for the Pangolin?  They are rapidly earning the reputation of being the mammal with the world’s highest level of illegal trade, yet many people have never heard of them.   Louise Tomsett, Mammal Curator at the
Feb 18, 2015 The penultimate journey...

It's been a while but we have now the penultimate installment of the Peruvian Adventure by Dave the driver Hall...enjoy.

 

I think that fourth night must have been the first one I've spent at 2,700m and I didn't seem any the worse for it. I tugged at the wooden shutters to see what day five on the road might have in store. Weather: acceptable for driving on dodgy roads. High, thin clouds cut with watery pastels. A shabby old town in diluted blue and sunbleached turquoise. The plaza mayor was just creaking into life. A cluster of women in straw hats held conference outside a grocer's. A policeman heaved open the giant wooden double doors of an eroded old police station, yawned, and spat.

 

I took a cold shower, dressed and started lugging trunks and sample boxes from last night's sorting. Prof. Knapp was already up (of course) dismantling the drier. The daily task of packing seemed a little more arduous this morning. Either the altitude, or the shin-barkingly steep antique stairs. The van was parked in a square pound at the back of the hotel, which looked appealingly like the OK Corral. Sandy had been a little concerned that the truck might not still be there this morning, but the locals seemed harmless enough to me, if not exactly chummy.

 

The growing light revealed our hotel to be of a certain vintage; much of the rear was semi-derelict and empty. I creaked back and forth with my boxes through creepy cavernous dusty backrooms, using the return trips to investigate dark passages and musty staircases leading nowhere, the only sounds my wheezing and the drip of an old tap. And here an appealingly dilapidated old dining room-dance hall I could imagine thronging with local revellers.

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Morning in Celendin.

 

After breakfast I took a few moments to explore the town, too. It might be old hat for the Dr Livingstones in our midst but I was unlikely to set eyes on the place again. Erica likes telling me how amusing it is reading my rhapsodic perspective on what she sees as routine grubby fieldwork: I see cascades of mountains; she sees dirty socks drying on the dashboard.

 

(Erica here - not exactly how I phrased it - he was bemoaning us for failing to see the beauty all around us - Sandy and I were concentrating on flies and spuds )

 

The market was already open for a day's easygoing trade. I ambled over. Three schoolboys kicked a burst ball to each other on the way to classes. The policeman hadn't moved. Stallholders unhurriedly erected awnings and set out their wares along the narrow thoroughfares, the alley-tunnels filled with the pungent aroma of meat, overripe fruit and hawker-stall breakfasts. I bought plump oranges and tomatoes for lunch from one of the impassively leather-faced vendors and wandered back to the hotel, ready for another day behind the wheel.

 

But no! Erica announced she'd be driving today, to 'give me a break'. The cheek. I protested firmly, in my quietest voice. This felt like cheating, but I was anticipating incredible scenery, ahead so I didn't flap.

 

(Erica again - they are long days driving- even we are not that nasty to make him drive continuously)

 

In contrast to other towns thus far it was a fair doddle finding the route out of town. Without at least two simultaneous sets of directions being offered in each ear, the going seemed somehow easier. Being fair, it wasn't hard to navigate. There was little traffic, and thanks to the colonial grid system we simply had to find the edge of the town and keep going until we hit a road going east.

 

Nevertheless, this road looked unpromising – a narrow back-street cluttered with the detritus of townsfolk's lives: bits of motorbike, smashed agricultural implements, underfed dogs...

 

But here a sign, which told us it was a mere 150km to our next stop, Leymebamba, and presently we started climbing.

 

The narrow road wound up again through foothills scarred with gold-mining quarries, many illegal. The locals had been protesting for some time, largely to deaf ears, that these mines – many sponsored by American multinationals – are polluting the water supply.

 

Above the scarred hillsides we rose... the road surface was perfect and I couldn't help thinking what an epic bike ride this would make for the stout of heart. Eventually the treeline gave way to rousing views of Celendin far below, where the light-blue double steeple of the church in the town square poked above the ramshackle rooftops. The town nestled in a half-bowl surrounded by hills. It must have looked attractive to the early Inca settlers and, unfortunately for them, the Spanish too. The head of the valley ended in an unseen drop, and far beyond were mountains whose peaks seemed oddly level with the town itself... now it was clear how high up the town was.

 

Still we climbed, this time without finding any locals to pester about their potatoes. Spying as yet no specimens, we meandered upward and upward, through rugged moorland, ever closer to the clouds that before had seemed so far off. As the sun finally renewed hostilities and the clouds began to leak a bit of sunshine, we reached a high pass of about 3,500m where a tiny village sat incongruously amid the rugged landscape, complete with a tiny football pitch and neatly planted conifers. The place had a strangely manicured feel.

 

Then, suddenly, the other side. As we breached the other side of the pass, a completely different panorama opened up. A dramatic series of valleys and mountain ranges rolled into the east, rib upon rib wreathed in mist, multiple horizons fading toward the Amazon. Somewhere to our right, far below and well beyond view, the Marañón River was thundering on its 1,700km looping journey toward the king of rivers. My head span at the spectacle. Sandy and Evelyn discussed tomatoes. Erica drove on without comment.

 

Our way wasn't getting any wider. As we wound downwards, hugging the cliffsides, the road only narrowed further. The bends were like fishhooks, and here and there were patches where the roadworks had not reached or where recent repairs had simply slid down the cliff. There were no barriers to protect motorists from the yawning 1,000-foot drops a matter of inches from the wheels. Superfluous roadsigns warned us to slow down and keep right. Erica didn't need much encouragement. Everyone in the car seemed to become silent. I tried to look far ahead to see if anything was coming the other way. We could only imagine what it must be like for lorry and bus drivers.

 

I was beginning to enjoy myself.

 

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A yawning 1,000-foot drop inches to the left.

 

In the clouds now. I like being in clouds, but it doesn't help with the driving. Breaks in the mist revealed teasing glimpses of dark, sheer mountainsides. Here and there the sun poked through and a rainbow made a perfect technicolor arch over the road.

 

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Driving through the Peruvian mountains.

 

Then just as suddenly, out of the mist, full sunshine, the scenery changing from hairpin to hairpin. We were descending toward a lush shoulder of high land, an upper valley nestled in a crown of mountains far below, dotted with tiny farmhouses and quiltwork cornfields, into which the road descended in a series of insane switchbacks. It was a perfect lost valley; a prime spot for Eldorado.

 

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A prime spot for Eldorado.

 

I still have no idea how Sandy spots specimens from the car even at the modest speeds we were achieving. But at last Prof Knapp bade us stop for our first samples amid a gradually drier landscape.

 

The sun was melting the clouds away and the morning was mellowing nicely. Nearby, an allotment of sorts, a small bungalow and what I thought were petrol pumps. The immediate area was lush, catching runoff rainwater in a small series of irrigation ditches. Prime mozzie territory, I thought. Again, parts of the area had been cleared recently – the solanum species again proving keener than mustard to move in quick on new space.

 

My ridiculous sample notes about the sampling area – for 'twas my job – read: “A small irrigation ditch is nearby and a 'petrol station' nearby also.”  I see now it was not a petrol station, but someone's dwelling, but their toilets seemed public enough at the time.

 

Sandy and the Fly Girls exited, rummaged in the back for Sucky and Sweep, then set off into the undergrowth. Evelyn swished gamely. Erica bothered a bush. I made notes. Sandy snagged some excellent samples of Solanum dilleni. I went to the toilet again.

 

(Erica once more - many conversations on fieldtrips revolve around toilets - how often you need to go, the facilities etc)

 

On we went. As we sank riverwards, hopes rose in the back of the truck that the ever-more arid terrain may harbour the tomato relatives we had encountered in similar habitats earlier in the trip: habrochaites perhaps. It was getting drier and drier. I prefer the lush stuff up in the mountains.

 

We fairly freewheeled to the next stop a couple of miles hence, where a sharp bend in the road concealed a small clutch of solenum arcanum known from Sandy's notes to be in this location many years previously. It was still there. All manner of insects waited to be sucked from the bushes, but nearby sat a sizeable troop of Homosapiens Peruensis, taking a break from mending the road. They were much animated by the sight of Erica's immense suction apparatus. We had disturbed the species in its natural habitat, so had to bear with good grace the sniggering and what I imagined to be Spanish double entendres. The Challenges of Fieldwork.

 

My notes say we came away with some samples of “Solanum simplefolium” but, according to Google, this doesn't exist. That's a shame – I liked that name. I can only imagine it was Solanum pimpenellifolium. This sports little purple flowers and tiny tomatoes – tomatillos – which are edible. It's a really close relative of our tomatoes. Indeed, it is sometimes called a wild tomato.

 

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Some Peruvian geology.

 

Further we sank toward the Marañón in our search for tomato and potato data, through spectacular peaks and pyramids of twisted volcanic rock where lava seams poked through like ribcages, past abandoned pasture and the occasional hungry-looking donkey picking through the brush.

 

At last we reached the valley floor, at the village of Chacanto in the district of Las Balsas – gateway to the Amazonas region. It was now all firmly semi-desert, reminiscent of parts of Nevada or Utah, catching the full ferocity of the sun. It felt like being stir-fried. The river looked inviting, but the Marañón slides through at a good clip here even in the dry season. It is a mere stream compared with what it would become downstream, but the bridge that spans it is a good 100m in length. We rolled over the bridge, stopped only a few minutes for a coffee in the sleepy village, and went on our way. We still had a long way to go...

 

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The Marañón River at the bottom of the valley.

 

Erica - since writing these blog pieces we have been analysing some of the data and trying to figure out what some of the insects that we sampled are. It has taken months to do this and there have been at least 9 people so far going through the insects. many are about to be sent of to specialists across the globe. Upstairs from where I am typing this at my desk we have two people imaging some of the specimens before they are sequenced for their DNA....its a very exciting time for this project.

Feb 16, 2015 Popocatépetl Part 6: Cloudy with a chance of Plinian eruptions

A team of geologists from the Museum and Imperial College are in Mexico carrying out  fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes in the world: Popocatépetl (Popo) and Colima. Catch up with their adventures in this series of blogposts.

 

Three weeks of amazing fieldwork at two of the most active volcanoes of the world have come to an end: Popocatépetl and Colima, you have been very generous to us, both in terms of large quantities of promising samples and impressive levels of activity. Now that we are back in London, we want to conclude this blog for the time being with some take-home impressions of our beautiful Mexican volcanoes.

 

As scenic and contemplative these pictures may be, all the steam puff, ash clouds and fresh lava streams are a constant reminder of the immense destructive powers slumbering within these giant volcanoes, posing imminent danger to its surroundings. Both Popo and Colima have shown increasing levels of activity in the last months, making detailed real-time monitoring as well as fundamental studies of the underlying principles of the volcanoes’ dynamics even more pressing and important.

 

Using the samples we collected during the last three weeks, we, at the Natural History Museum and Imperial College will work hard in the future to contribute to the understanding of how Popo and Colima work.

 

There is more fieldwork at Popo to come in the next years, and of course we will be covering these trips at this exact place again. Until then, enjoy the pictures and be sure to watch out for a forthcoming NatureLive event at the Museum’s Attenborough Studio, where we will be talking in detail about our exciting trip to Popo and Colima! Thanks for reading.

 

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Popo as seen from Paso de Cortes: The wind blows the impressive steam plume to the NE.

 

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Looking South: The mildly snow-capped Popo towers in a surreal way over the trees surrounding ‘La Cascada’ resort.

 

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A last view from our hotel in Amecameca: Popo bids farewell to us with a nice trail of steam puffs.

 

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The danger within the clouds: Fuego de Colima. Even through the cloud cover, one can make out the gases that are constantly exhaled from the summit.

 

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The black lava flow in the center of this image has been emplaced during the last two years of activity of Fuego de Colima. The ‘clouds’ you can see here are actually gases coming from this lava flow, which is still hot.

 

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Twin peaks: The steaming, several hundreds of degrees hot summit area of Fuego de Colima in the foreground, and its snow-capped older sister volcano, Nevado de Colima, in the background.

Feb 16, 2015 Meteorite adventures in Japan

Last December, Epi Vaccaro (one of our PhD students) and I went to two scientific meetings in Tokyo, Japan. Our aims were to present some of the research that we’ve been doing at the Museum and to meet other scientists who work on similar samples and topics.

 

First up was the Fifth Symposium on Polar Science at the National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR). Since the early 1960s, the NIPR has used Antarctic stations to carry out research into a wide range of areas including climate, atmospheric science and biology. Fortunately for us, they are also interested in meteorites and, after several 'meteorite hunting'expeditions in the Antarctic, now have one of the largest collections in the world.

 

I spoke at the meeting (despite a serious case of jetlag!) about differences I have observed between the mineralogy of CI chondrites that were seen to fall to Earth, such as Orgueil, and those that have been recovered from the Antarctic. These CI meteorites are important as they show very similar characteristics to the surfaces of some asteroids that are soon(ish!) to be visited by space missions.

 

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Presentations were temporarily suspended at the NIPR meeting as we watched the launch of the Hayabusa-2 mission.

 

One of these missions is the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, which aims to collect material from a primitive asteroid and return it to Earth. We think that this material will allow us to learn more about water and life in the early solar system.

 

The samples won’t touch down on Earth until 2020 but the spacecraft was launched (after a few days delay) during our stay in Japan. I think that watching a tiny spacecraft being hurtled into space on the back of a rocket, whilst sitting alongside the people who have invested so much time and energy into the mission, was one of the most tense afternoons of my life!*

 

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Model of the Hayabusa spacecraft at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

 

You may have guessed from its name that Hayabusa-2 is actually a follow up to the original Hayabusa spacecraft, which (despite a few bumps along the way) in 2010 became the first ever mission to collect material from an asteroid and bring it back to Earth.

 

Hayabusa 2014 Symposium at JAXA. The meeting covered diverse subjects such as space weathering and sample curation, and also included a talk by Epi on the challenges of analysing very small samples using non-destructive techniques.

 

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Epi presenting his work at the Hayabusa 2014 Symposium at JAXA.

 

Sample return missions are challenging and expensive but produce very exciting science, as I witnessed at JAXA. There are limits on what kinds of scientific experiments can be carried out remotely, but returned samples from the asteroid belt will provide a wealth of new information about our solar system’s past.

 

*You’ll be pleased to hear that the launch was successful and Hayabusa-2 is safely on its way.

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